Like many Viennese boys of the late 1930s, Johannes Betzler joins the Hitler Youth, in which he takes great pride, and swallows the Nazi message whole, to his parents’ dismay. When the war comes, he figures out that they’re hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, behind a false wall. Outraged, he barely contains himself, until a bomb disfigures him during an enemy air raid, after which he becomes interested in Elsa and, gradually, consumed by her.
From this premise comes a bold novel of great fierceness, insight, and emotional savagery. I admire Leunens’s refusal to soft-soap anything, even as, while reading, I had to put the book down and pace around the room. But if you stick with Caging Skies, you’ll get an entire era distilled into two people, a Tolstoyan marvel. The truism about scratching a bully and finding an ineffectual, strutting egotist scared of his inadequacy emerges in black and white. But Leunens goes further, showing why and how, and the lies and self-deception required. It’s absolutely remarkable how she exposes Johannes as a pitiful, self-satisfying beast, casting the world in his own image and himself as victim. This is pure narcissism, but it’s more than that; the portrayal tacitly evokes current politics and personalities in frightening colors.
I do question aspects of the relationship between Johannes and Elsa. Are we meant to think that the Jews’ murderers actually loved them, in a perverse way? Is Elsa meant to represent all Jews, or does she become Johannes’s creature, spawn of his twisted mind? I have trouble accepting the nature of the connection between these two. Nevertheless, as historical fiction, Caging Skies re-creates an era from the inside, and lovers of the literary will find plenty to admire.